Judges Allow Sexual Abuse Victim’s Comfort Dog in Court

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7.11.13 - Comfort Dog in Court1

An appellate division court in Albany, New York has upheld their allowance of a 15-year-old girl’s therapy dog to be allowed in the courtroom to help her testify against her abuser.

Victor Tohom, who is currently serving 25 years to life in prison, attempted to appeal his 2011 convictions for predatory sexual assault against a child, claiming that the victim’s therapy dog made her unduly sympathetic to the jury.

Four justices unanimously rejected his claim, stating that Tohom failed to show how the dog’s presence was forbidden by state law, or how it hindered his right to a fair trial.

The judge in the case had warned jurors not to let the comfort dog or sympathy sway their decisions.

It is beyond dispute that a dog does not have the ability to discern truth from falsehood and, thus, cannot communicate such a distinction to a jury,” Justice Sandra Sgroi wrote.

The dog, named Rosie, was allowed by the judge to sit next to the girl, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Rosie had been used in therapy sessions, and helped the teen talk and ease her anxiety.

We are not unmindful that Rose may have engendered some sympathy … in the minds of the jurors,” she wrote. “However, there is no proof that such sympathy was significantly greater than the normal human response to a child’s testimony about his or her sexual abuse at the hands of an adult.

Prosecutors did acknowledge that there was no case law in New York for a therapy dog to be present, but that a precedent had been set for children to testify with comfort items, like teddy bears. Sgroi mentioned that state appeals courts in California and Washington came to similar conclusions last year, and cited the 1986 statute establishing treatment standards for child victims.

Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady said this was a progressive step for the rights of abused children.

A child victim’s recounting the horrible details of a sexual assault committed by a trusted adult is certainly traumatic by itself,” Grady said. “This dog, Rosie, was specially trained. Therefore it would allow child victims of violent assaults to confront their abusers in court and seek justice.”